The Federal Reserve, a rich man’s hunting club, top-secret meetings, a 19th-century female novelist, and a 15th-century fox hunt in the chevy chase trivia roundup…
• • •
1. Chevy Chase (the place) is a town in Maryland, developed from uninhabited farmland purchased in the 1890s by Nevada senator Francis Newlands (a truly incandescent white supremacist). The name of the town comes from the popular English piece, The Ballad of Chevy Chase. The ballad dates back to the 15th century, and, confusingly, is actually the name of two separate ballads, both describing the same event. What event could be so important as to create an internationally-recognized song that’s hung around for five centuries?
It’s about a fox hunt, or chase. The “chevy” comes either from the Cheviot Hills, where the hunt happened, or as a diminutive of the French chevaucee, meaning “border raid” (I bet the German word for border raid is a really great compound word… … …I just checked: it’s Grenzüberfall). Legend holds that the Earl of Northumberland—clearly a brute and a scoundrel—decided to hunt a fox, with only its cunning to protect it. He and his party tracked the elusive canid into lands owned by the Earl of Douglas, who, bursting with umbrage, led a brutal assault which left only 110 people alive. Out of how many? I have no idea. But that’s where the story comes from. Of course I’m making it sound more silly that it is: at the time, the English/Scottish border was in major dispute, and there were ambushes, livestock raids, and battles of all sorts, at all times. Read the ballad here.
2. Among the many pieces of pop culture in which the ballad pops up is North and South, an 1855 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell and a book deeply of a time and place. It reflected the changing economic and cultural nature of England: the south was rural, still the province of landed gentry taking rents from peasant workers. The north was urban and industrial, having ridden the wave of the industrial revolution and now the province of manufacturers, tycoons, and many, many impoverished mill workers living in squalid conditions. The north was modern, the south was old (Gaskell and her husband lived in Manchester, a northern “millocracy” that was particularly grim for workers, and clearly informed the story). The book centers on a young southern woman who ends up in a mill town, her observations of the brutal life of the workers, and her deeply conflicted feelings for—read: literal love-hate relationship with—a mill owner.
Gaskell’s critique of industrial capitalism did not go, well, uncritiqued. One response suggested that as a woman, Gaskell could not “understand industrial problems,” would “know too little about the cotton industry,” and therefore should not “add to the confusion by writing about it.”
Born in 1810 to a Unitarian minister, Gaskell first published her own work in 1847, under the amazing pseudonym “Cotton Mather Mills.” Most all of her work focused on class struggles, economic (in)equality, and Victorian and small-town morality. Mary Barton (1848) is the tale of a woman who watches her widowed father devolve into a bitter class hatred that ends with his committing murder. Ruth (1853) was a condemnation of ostracizing “fallen” women and was controversial enough to be burned by several churches and banned from libraries. Cranford is a series of vignettes satirizing small-town morals. And she’s probably most well-known for her 1857 biography of Charlotte Brontë.
Gaskell commonly used the pen name “Mrs. Gaskell.” This was intentional, but it’s not clear exactly why she did it. Possibly it was aimed to set her apart from other women writers who were generally thought to be spinsters (Gaskell’s husband, a minister, was pretty cool: he taught the children of mill workers in their home and acted as Elizabeth’s literary agent). Then again, it might also be simply that she abhorred revealing any information about herself to the public. She once responded to an interview request: “I must send you on the answer I have already sent to many others; namely an entire refusal to sanction what is to me so objectionable and indelicate a practice, by furnishing a single fact with regard to myself. I do not see why the public have any more to do with me than buy or reject the ware I supply to them.”
When she died in 1865, she was called “the most powerful and finished female novelist of an epoch singularly rich in female novelists.” Her family, accepting her wish to remain private, did not release her notes or letters. If anyone wants to do a book club of North and South, let me know. More Gaskell info here and here.
Side note #1: Most of her work was published by Dickens in his literary magazine. He was enamored of her work and referred to her as “my dear Scheherezade.”
Side note #2: Charlotte Brontë, while visiting Gaskell, once became so anxious about meeting some other guests that she hid behind the curtains waiting for them to leave.
Side note #3: North and South includes the following exchange, which I adore:
“’Oh, Mr. Thornton, I am not good enough!’
‘Not good enough! Don’t mock my own deep feeling of unworthiness.’”
3. Chevy Chase (the person, real name Cornelius Crane Chase) was born in 1943. Best known for pratfalling as Gerald Ford on SNL, saying “nananana” while golfing, and experiencing an interminable decline into terminally anti-funny family comedies, he’s also a grade-A mega asshole so reviled that they couldn’t even find people to come to his roast and insult him. And, on a personal level, there is no sin greater than his torpedoing a Kevin Smith written / Jason Lee starring Fletch reboot, which would have been life-altering to 1999 me.
Chase is also a fourteenth-generation New Yorker (relevant quote from Jurassic Park of all places: “…you know what assholes congenitally rich people are.”). But I’m not here to talk about Chevy Chase, I’m here to talk about his great-great grandfather: Richard T. Crane, founder of Crane & Co. plumbing and brass fittings. And, actually, I’m not here to talk about him, but his rich-dude hunting lodge, the Jekyll Island Club.
Just off the coast of Georgia is Jekyll Island, which covers nine square miles. Originally settled by Creek peoples, Spain showed up in the 16th century and colonized it. Then France. Then Spain, France again, then England in 1733. This is when it was named Jekyll Island, for an English benefactor, Sir Joseph Jekyll. Jekyll was a well-to-do barrister, once named “Master of Rolls,” and supposedly his descendant was friends with RL Stevenson, which is where Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde comes from. Jekyll died in 1738 of “a mortification of the bowels.” That’s not relevant to the story, I just thought it was funny.
By the 1840s the island was mostly abandoned, and in 1886 some rich folks had the idea to buy up the land and build a resort there. That resort was the Jekyll Island Club: “The world of industry and commerce, of railroads and factories, of trusts, mergers, and monopolies, is something wholly apart from this island paradise.” Escape from the stress of the modern tycoonery, get away from the dizzying mental burden of managing multibillion dollar mergers and hiring the Pinkertons to break strikes monopoly, and also on-site taxidermy—only at Jekyll Island.
The club lasted from 1886 until 1947, and its member roster reads like a who’s who of Gilded Age plutocrats: Goulds, Vanderbilts, Morgans, Pulitzers, Rockerfellers, Marshall Field, a statistically improbable number of people named Cornelius…hell, there’s even a Higinbotham on the list. It was a place for the immensely wealthy to have their monocles resurfaced, loudly harrumph, hunt
people foxes, ride around in open-top four-wheeled electric carts called Red Bugs, place the first transcontinental telephone call in history, and hold a secret meeting to iron out the basis of the Federal Reserve.
Let me back up. That story starts with the Panic of 1907 (not to be confused with the panic of 1857, or 1873, or 1893, or 1896, or 1910), in which bank runs, a money supply crunch, and investor panic nearly torpedoed the economy. The list of causes for this is nearly endless: the bank of London had raised interest rates, the San Francisco earthquake forced scads of money away from New York and to the west coast, the money supply in New York seasonally fluctuated because it was based in part on agriculture. Oh, and also the owner of United Copper tried to corner the market, failed hard, bankrupted himself and his bank, and destabilized the Knickerbocker trust, leading to bank runs and a stock market crash.
JP Morgan and a bunch of other immensely wealthy people essentially got together and decided which struggling banks/trusts they wanted to bail out. The forgiving reading of this is that Morgan and the fatcats bailed out the US economy (which presumes that they had nothing to do with the economic collapse in the first place). Upton Sinclair on the other hand wrote a semi-fictionalized novel accusing Morgan of, more or less, engineering the panic to increase his own power and holdings. Which is more accurate? I am not an economist.
In the wake of the panic, Senator Nelson Aldrich, a Jekyll Island Club member, was sent on a factfinding trip to Europe, as part of a committee investigating “how to maybe not have the economy almost self-destruct on a regular basis.” Europe had central banks, which, if the US had them (and they didn’t, thanks to Andrew Jackson), could have bailed out the banks on their own and, like, insured people’s deposits so the first inkling of panic would not lead to a bank run in the first place.
Aldrich saw something he liked, and in 1910 invited a group of academics and financiers to Jekyll Island to discuss the formation of a central bank. It was a top-secret meeting. The cover story was a duck-hunting trip; the attendees traveled separately and addressed each other by first names only. Aldrich even had to gladhand a snooping reporter to throw him off the scent of a story.
The met for 10 days at the club, crafting a bill to create a central banking system. Then they went duck-hunting. Unfortunately the bill was not adopted, but the bones of it were in the 1913 bill creating the Federal Reserve.
The club largely disbanded by the onset of World War II, and in 1947 the state of Georgia bought the club and island. It’s now a vacation destination. You can rent a swank room there and play golf. Read more about Jekyll Island here.